The inheritors of Frontier Gandhi’s progressive political legacy were routed in Pakistan’s election because they failed to connect to the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa
The Awami National Party (ANP), the political legacy of “Frontier Gandhi” or Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, entered Elections 2013 with a huge anti-incumbency factor and corruption allegations, that were matching in scale, if not more, with its coalition partner of five years, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). So, when the ANP began to get specifically targeted by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on the campaign trail, people, rather cynically, began to think the party might be able to tap into the sympathy the attacks appeared to generate and salvage something out of a hopeless situation.
But the unkindest cut was delivered by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) electorate on May 11 when the party was practically wiped clean from the electoral map of Pakistan. The ANP picked only one seat in the National Assembly, four in the KP Assembly and one in Balochistan. Central president Asfandayar Wali Khan could not hold on to his seat, Charsadda.
Talking heads on television were quick to write the ANP’s epitaph, forgetting that this is not the first time the party has fared so poorly in the elections. In 2002, the party was pushed out of the reckoning by an alliance of religious right-wing parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), only to bounce back in 2008.
For columnist Mohammad Taqi, this is not the end of the road for the ANP or Pashtun nationalism. Analysing the “anatomy of [ANP’s] defeat” in The Daily Times, Dr. Taqi said: “The ANP has prevailed in many electoral — and constitutional — battles and has lost some too. By no means is the close of this chapter in the party’s history the end of the long and illustrious tale of the Pashtun nationalist movement, of which the ANP remains the torchbearer.”
Many in Pakistan maintain that the ANP and the PPP are better Opposition parties as both have a history of rising to challenges thrown at them by the establishment and non-state actors. Both are perceived to be left-oriented, liberal and secular, which in Pakistan is translated as being la-deen (irreligious), though, of late, pro-American is a new tag attached to them. In an increasingly radicalised society, all four tags are suicidal and the ANP, in particular, did find some grudging respect among opinion-makers for not buckling under the terrorist attacks. As per the ANP count, it lost 61 activists in 31 terrorist attacks on the party’s meetings and offices between March 30 and May 11, forcing it to scale the campaign back.
The ANP’s “Watan Ya Kafan” (nation or coffin) slogan did tug at the heartstrings and might have been a great catchphrase but was not enough to catch votes. To some like media development specialist Adnan Rehmat, this was inexplicable. “PPP’s sound drubbing I get. PTI’s [Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf] ascendancy I understand. PML-N’s (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) roaring return I have no issues with. But ANP’s virtual wipeout I just can’t fathom. They deserved better than this. Can’t stomach Asfandayar Wali and Iftikhar Hussain losing. My heart goes out to ANP — they didn’t deserve this, Naya Pakistan or no Naya Pakistan,” he wrote on his Facebook page in search of some answers.
Reasons for defeat
The ANP managed only five per cent of the vote share in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It was clubbed with “others” in vote share tabulations at the national level and in Sindh where the party has made inroads in Karachi in recent years. This is because of the migration of Pakhtuns to the metropolis as terrorism and counter-terrorism operations in the frontier areas have resulted in internal displacement. There is a fair amount of unanimity on the reasons for the drubbing. Poor governance, corruption and a disconnect with the masses. According to Hasham Babar, who left the ANP over a year ago to join the PTI, the main reason for the debacle is that the party invariably turns its back on domestic issues when in power. “Plus they were like hungry hounds,” he added but maintained the ANP was far from finished.
Corruption and lack of governance apart, it appears that the absence of the leadership was the ANP’s biggest undoing. Since an assassination attempt in 2008, Mr. Afsandayar Wali was practically never seen in the province. Similarly, the charge against the other leaders was that they were inaccessible and spent most of their time in Islamabad while the people were left to bear the brunt of the terrorist attacks. “And, running away does not go down well with the Pakhtun ethos.” Dr. Taqi points out that ANP workers are used to the open door policy of Asfandayar Wali’s father, Khan Abdul Wali Khan.
Rustam Shah Mohmand, a retired bureaucrat from the tribal agencies, is of the view that the attacks on ANP rallies may have drawn sympathy elsewhere but not among the Pakhtuns. “This should not be said but in a cynical way the Pakhtuns saw in the attacks some poetic justice as they felt that they had been abandoned by their leaders. Drones were killing them but the ANP did not voice disapproval.”
This is contested by the ANP which maintains that the party was the first to lead a rally into the tribal areas against drones. Public memory being what it is, not many recall this as opposed to the high-optics effort made by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s protests against drones.
Also, according to Karachi-based internally displaced researcher Ali Arqam, the ANP did not keep up with the times and tailor its tools of mobilisation accordingly. “ANP relied on the traditional power centres of Pashtun society; approaching people through family elders and jirgas. PTI employed the tactics of direct approach to the urban and peri-urban youth. The latter was successful as the traditional power centres are diminishing in Pashtun society. Also, the ANP failed to respond to the growing urbanisation and the urge among the urban youth to get mainstreamed instead of remaining tied to Pashtun nationalism.”
Mr. Babar, who has seen both parties from the inside, concurred, pointing out that the ANP does not have an urbanised worker base to match the PTI. “ANP is very rural and has a very rural mentality. They never tried to extend urbanisation to the villages.”
Election Commission’s role
Be that as it may, the ANP leadership is still looking for an answer to a fundamental question: why nothing was done by the Election Commission to ensure the party a level playing field when it was being attacked at will while the PTI had no such fear. The TTP had made it clear early on that it would target the three secular parties: the ANP, PPP and Muttahida Qaumi Movement. And, it did, with painful consistency while the PTI and PML(N) were spared. “Hakimullah Mehsud [TTP chief] was the election referee, not Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim [Chief Election Commissioner],” said Mr. Asfandayar Wali.
Conceding that incumbency was a factor that worked against the party, ANP parliamentarian Bushra Gohar insisted: “So was engineering and selection through vicious propaganda, threats and attacks. We highlighted pre-poll engineering to keep liberal parties out. ANP was robbed of its mandate at gunpoint but has accepted poll results but those fully facilitated are up in arms.”
The emergence of a PTI-Jamat-e-Islami post-poll coalition in the province has given currency to her contention. The question doing the rounds is whether it is a mere coincidence that a right-wing alliance is going to be in charge of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa at the time of the U.S.-led NATO exit from adjoining Afghanistan. After all, another coalition of similar leanings, the MMA, was brought to power when the coalition forces were moving into Afghanistan in 2002.